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Beating Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women, and by 2020, seventy percent of all cases of breast cancer will occur in developing countries. An estimated 40,460 women will die of breast cancer in 2007

One might have heard a lot about breast cancer but not have taken much notice as the general idea is that breast cancer affects only women 40 years or older. This is wrong, nowadays, unfortunately, young women are being diagnosed in their teens, twenties and thirties. The percentage is definitely very low, but it can still happen to anyone, even men.

It is a good idea for women of all ages to perform breast self-examination (BSE) so that they can get used to how their bodies feel normally. Doctors recommend doing a montly self-exam at the same time each month (like a few days after periods end, when breasts are less tender). Although significant efforts are made to achieve early detection and effective treatment medically, about 20 percent of all women with breast cancer will die from the disease, and it is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in women.

What is breast cancer?

Breast cancer is a cancer of breast tissue. Breast cancer usually happens when certain cells located in the breast start to grow out of control, taking over nearby tissue and spreading throughout the body. It is said that any type of tissue in the breast can form some type of cancer, but it mostly comes from either ducts or glands. Large collections of this infected tissue are called "tumours". It can take months or even years for a tumour to get big enough for someone to actually feel it in their breast.

How is it caused?

Around 80,000 breast cancer cases are reported every year in India among women. The risk factor of breast cancer can be divided into two types: those you cant change and those you can change. The factors associated with increasing your risk of breast cancer that your cant change include: just being a woman, getting older, or having some type of family history or a relative with breast cancer. Other risk factors are having your menopause late, having children past the age of thirty, or contracting a genetic mutation that would somehow increase your risk.

  • The risk for cancer increases for a person if one or more of his family members suffer from the disease. A person may carry genes that make certain normal cells cancerous.
  • Women who begin menstruating before the age of 12 years or stop after 55 years are more at risk for developing breast cancer and who have not borne children or have had children late in their life.
  • Other factors like obesity or overweight, excessive drinking of alcohol and lack of exercise are also risk factors for breast cancer.
  • Environmental factors like exposure to harmful radiation, cigarette smoke over a long period of time and pesticides also increases the risk.

The exact reason for the cancerous growth of cells is not known. There are certain factors that do not cause cancers by themselves, but make a person more at risk for the development of cancer. These risk factors may be genetic or environmental in nature.

Certain types of risk factors that you can change are:

1. Not taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which means that long term uses of estrogens for menopause symptoms does in fact slightly increase your risk.

2. Stopping the use of birth control pills, because it is noted that ten years following the cessation of the pill, a womans risk of breast cancer reverts to what it would have been if she had not used this form of birth control.

Having one or all of these risk factors does not mean that a woman will get breast cancer, but the most important step for a woman to prevent breast cancer is to schedule regular checkups, screenings and mammograms.

What are the symptoms?

Finding breast cancer early makes breast cancer treatment much easier and more effective. Early breast problems may have 3 symptoms:

  • Pains: with or without breast swelling, fever, swelling of lymph nodes in the armpit and breast area.
  • Lumps: which are usually movable, may be more pronounced right before or during menstruation. However, there are also problems with no symptoms in their early stage, such as breast cancer. Most of the breast problems begin in the milk ducts where the milk flow may or may not exist, thus clots or deposits are easier to occur than in the lymphatic ducts or blood vessels of the breasts. Early detection and removing of problems are essential for cancer prevention and overall breast health.A dimple in the skin overlying the breast accompanied with dryness and scaling should be a cause for concern.

How is it diagnosed?

A breast lump is usually first detected by a woman on self-examination . Monthly breast self-exams are an option for all women beginning by age 20. Women who regularly examine their breasts are more likely to notice changes—including masses or lumps—that could be early signs of cancer. It is best to check about a week after your period, when breasts are not swollen or tender. If you no longer have a period, examine yourself on the same day every month. If you see or feel a change in your breasts, see your doctor immediately. But remember, most of the time breast changes are not cancer.

What is the treatment?

Since the breast is not an organ that is necessary for survival, it is generally removed by a surgical procedure called mastectomy. In some cases only the lump is removed, in others the whole breast is removed.

Later, the patient may be given radiotherapy. This procedure helps to destroy the cancerous cells without harming the neighbouring tissue. It is managed with a range of treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiotherapy and more recently, monoclonal antibody therapy. Usually a combination of all of these procedures is followed for complete treatment. In most cases, if the cancer is detected early and treated appropriately, breast cancer patients can usually lead a cancer-free life.

Breast cancer: myth and reality

  • Mammograms are painful and unsafe
    Fact: Mammograms can be uncomfortable but the compression of the breast during mammography takes only a few minutes. To lessen discomfort, schedule your mammogram when your breasts are least sensitive and not right before period
  • Any mass that shows up on a mammogram is most likely cancerous
    Fact: Most abnormalities will turn out not to be cancerous. A mass could be a cyst or another benign breast condition.
  • If breast cancer does not run in your family, you wont get it
    Fact: Most women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. Increasing age is the biggest single risk factor for breast cancer.
  • A monthly breast self-exam is the best way to find breast tumours
    Fact: High-quality mammography is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible—when it is most curable. By the time a tumour can be felt, it is usually bigger than the average size of one first detected by mammogram.

However, breast examination by you and your health care provider is still very important. About 25 percent of breast cancers are found only on breast examination (not on the mammogram, about 35 percent are found using mammography alone and 40 percent are found by both physical exam and mammography. So it is important that you take a 3-step approach: yearly mammogram, yearly clinical breast self-examination, and monthly self-exams.

Breast cancer fact file

  • Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women
  • An estimated 450 men will die from breast cancer in 2007.
  • The most proven and significant risk factors for getting breast cancer are being female and getting older. Approximately, 80 percent of all breast cancers occur in women 50 years of age.
  • The five-year survival rate for women in localised breast cancer (cancer that has not spread to lymph nodes or other locations outside the breast) has increased from 74 percent in 1982 to 98 percent in 2007.

Cancer in the Indian subcontinent

Cancer is regarded as one of the major noncommunicable diseases in the Indian sub-continent region and is targeted for integrated surveillance, prevention andcontrol by the World Health Organisation. It accounts for a significant proportion of deaths and a large proportion of morbidity in the region. It is estimated that more than one million people die every year from cancer in the region.

Cancers contributed to 3.4% of all deaths reported from India, 6.6% from Indonesia, 2.9% from Myanmar, 0.8% from Nepal, 4.2% from Sri Lanka and 5.4% from Thailand.

Cancer of the respiratory tract (trachea/bronchus/lungs) is reported as the most common cause of death from cancers in men in India,Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Cancer of cervix is the most common cancer in women in India and Indonesia. Sri Lanka and Thailand reported a slightly higher number of breast cancer cases compared to cervical cancer. Cancers related to sites associated with the use of tobacco constitute nearly 44.6% of cancers in men and 20% of cancers in women. Over 80% of cases come for treatment at a late stage when survival rates are low.

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